This is the second post in our series on sexual abuse. You can read the first post here.
A reflection by Sarah
Forgiveness is one of the most central ideas in all of Christian teaching. Christ commands us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us.” As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness seems like a straightforward concept: forgive everyone, always, and as many times as necessary. Yet anyone who has tried to put these teachings into action can attest to how challenging forgiveness can be. One reason forgiveness is so hard is that perfect forgiveness requires understanding both God’s mercy and God’s justice in a perfect way. Forgiveness, like other components of God’s mercy and justice, reflects the unfathomable and unknowable heart of God. When discussing sexual abuse, it’s paramount to sit in the tension between God’s mercy and God’s justice.
When I first became aware of the news about Josh Duggar’s sexual abuse of his sisters and at least one other girl during his teen years, I was not surprised that his response to the public focused on his asking for and receiving forgiveness both from God and the victims. What did surprise me was seeing that a large number of people I know believe this should be sufficient grounds for ceasing criticism of Josh and his parents and letting the crime remain a “private family matter.” It’s naive to think such a situation should ever have been a private family matter in the first place, and it’s even more naive to think forgiving an abuser is simple and straightforward. I do not claim to know what Josh Duggar’s victims’ psychological and spiritual processes have looked like over the years. It’s possible that they have indeed forgiven him fully. But it’s much more likely that there’s more to the story than we will ever hear. It’s possible that the forgiveness Josh claims they have extended to him is not actually forgiveness. I draw from my own personal experience in saying this.
In some manifestations of conservative Christianity, forgiveness is used as a tool of manipulation. This does not happen only in the Quiverfull movement, but across a wide variety of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. To put some flesh on what I mean by “manipulation,” I’ll share a bit more detail about my own story.
One morning when I was 14, I had finally worked up the courage to tell my parents that I was being abused by a deacon at our church for two years at the time. We were at church early, the perpetrator had fondled my breasts and vaginal area while I was waiting outside the door of the women’s restroom, and I could not contain the truth any longer. I ran into the sanctuary, pulled my mom out and into the restroom, and began to tell her about what had been happening to me. I had barely scratched the surface of the details when I noticed her facial expression. It was cold and severe as she informed me that she thought I was either exaggerating or outright lying. No sooner than she dragged me back into a pew did my abuser approach her and comment on how tall I was growing, and that my height would come in handy next weekend when the church windows needed cleaning. My mom was completely fooled and forbade me to say anything about my “tale” to my dad immediately after church. I could not help myself, so I disobeyed and began blurting out random details of the story as we drove home. My dad’s response was to throw a screaming fit in the car, which terrified me into retracting part of the story and justifying my “incorrect” perception of my abuser’s behavior. This only made things worse, and I spent the rest of the day crying myself into a migraine as my parents told me that I was mentally ill, sexually deviant, unfit to be alone with my younger sister, at risk for tearing apart the entire church community, and in danger of going to hell. That evening, every inch of my privacy was revoked and I was forbidden to speak to anyone about this.
Over the next few months, the need for repentance was hammered into my skull day after day. Not my abuser’s repentance — my own. I was told that I should not commune and that I should instead be contemplating the state of my soul. Most of my mental space was consumed by suicide plans and how I would manage to find one that would work given how closely my parents were monitoring me. All this time, the abuse was continuing. I never had the chance to share the full extent of it because my parents’ condemnation was so swift and unwavering. Eventually, my dad saw what he thought might have been the deacon fondling me. His advice was that I should stay away from the deacon but be understanding and forgiving because of the deacon’s old age. Much later, my mom saw the abuse with her own eyes. Around the same time, a friend from church shared with me that she had also been abused by this deacon. When her parents and my parents eventually talked to each other I learned that this problem had been occurring for years with multiple victims, and those in the community who knew about it preferred to sweep it under the rug.
From that point forward, my parents began saying to me, “We’re sorry. Forgive us,” as though that should be enough to end the pain and bring about healing. Simultaneously, they made it clear that I was never to inform anyone of what had happened to me, and that disobeying this request would only cause more problems for me. At one point they took me to see a local psychiatrist who was all too willing to let them control what I said and did not say about the abuse. The psychiatrist — a mandated reporter, a person with a license to practice medicine — did not report anything. I was never asked for my opinion about how justice could be served. My abuser got away with everything. He was never held accountable by the community in any way. By the time I was an adult and considered reporting the abuse myself, he was ill and mostly homebound — no longer a threat to community safety. He had the privilege of reposing with the public image of a virtuous Christian who was a role model in the community for decades.
As the years have gone by, my parents have begged for my forgiveness repeatedly. They ask me why I can’t just move on with my life, why I can’t accept their apology, and why I am still so bitter and resentful years after the last occurrence of sexual abuse. They inquire as to why I don’t just focus on the good memories of my childhood, as though the good times outweigh the reality that I was sexually abused and the abuse was hidden. What they don’t realize is that forgiveness is a process, and in situations like these it can take a very long time. To them, moving on with my life means not needing or wanting to talk about this anymore. It means shutting up, doing all the life things I’m doing now at age 30, and just not thinking about what happened all those years ago. To them, bitterness and resentment are the same as having strong feelings about it half my life later.
This is the problem with the brand of grace that’s peddled throughout much of American Christianity: Jesus forgives all sins immediately after we say that we are sorry, so it follows that every Christian who wants to be forgiving like Jesus will let go of any wrongdoing once the offenders have apologized. That is the mentality I was raised with, at least when it comes to forgiving parents for making accusations of lying and sexual deviancy in addition to covering up child sexual abuse. That’s why when I was a teenager, I thought parroting “I forgive you” to my parents was the only way to show faithfulness to Christ. I believed that the state of my soul was dependent on it, especially after years of hearing stories about how miserable my grandmother was when she reposed because of all the grudges she had held during her lifetime. I honestly believed that I had forgiven them until my mid-twenties when I realized that I had never really processed what had happened to me and how I felt about the fact that no one was ever held accountable.
“I’m sorry” does not yield automatic forgiveness. Grace is not a gum ball machine where a person can insert a quarter, then go skipping along and blowing bubbles in ten seconds. It’s easy to assume that a survivor is bitter and resentful when you are not the one who has to live with the lasting consequences of a child molester violating your body and your parents insisting on covering up the whole situation. This is why I am skeptical of the claim that Josh Duggar’s victims have forgiven him, and therefore all is well. Perhaps they have, but why are we assuming that is so? Why are we so willing to say that this situation is a private family matter where the victims chose to forgive and move on with their lives? The language in every statement from the Duggar family about this issue suggests a high likelihood that Josh’s victims were manipulated into “forgiveness.” Whether that is the case or not, it happens constantly in conservative Christianity and is inexcusable.
You may have read this whole post and decided that I am a bitter, resentful person who cannot find enough strength in Christ to forgive my parents or my abuser. I have been working for several years on forgiving my parents, and I will probably be continuing that work for several more years. That’s okay. It takes time. I have a kind and patient spiritual director, and will soon be looking again for a kind and patient therapist. Though I cannot yet say that I have forgiven my parents, I can say with confidence that I have forgiven my abuser fully. He sinned against me terribly, but I am no longer angry with him. I hope that in the hereafter, I will get the chance to meet his redeemed self and come to an understanding of the whys that still run through my mind from time to time. On the day I learned of his death, I prayed for the repose of his soul. Some survivors will think I am crazy for this, but I genuinely hope that he is at peace and free from whatever demons and passions that had hold of him when I was young. Getting to a place where I can say all of this has taken hours of therapy and spiritual direction and has required the support of my extensive family of choice. It cannot be forced. A person cannot be manipulated into hoping that her abuser is at rest rather than in torment. I would not hold this attitude up as an expectation for any other survivor. I could not have gotten to this place if I had not willingly distanced myself from the cheap grace messages I had been exposed to in my earliest years as a survivor.
As I engage in discussions on Facebook about the Duggar scandal, something one of my friends commented continues to stick out to me. The implications of this comment are frightening: “Any Jesus who would forgive something like this is no Jesus of mine.” I have to wonder if this kind of thought would still come up in response to sexual abuse if Christians did a better job of teaching forgiveness. If what I had learned about forgiveness as a child and teen was the traditional Christian understanding of forgiveness, I would agree with her. When we reduce forgiveness to, “Being sorry and apologizing is good enough to erase the sin entirely,” we distort the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. We communicate that Jesus will save the child molester who makes a public showing of remorse, no questions asked…but when it comes to the child who has been severaly sinned against, her salvation is dependent upon being manipulated into “forgiveness.”
Forgiveness is intimately connected to God’s judgement. When humans make so many misjudgments in cases of abuse, it can be difficult to trust that God can and will enact truly perfect justice. Until there is perfect justice, the cries of victims will continue bear witness to a world in desperate need of redemption. And so I continue to pray, “Lord have mercy. Show us a new way to relate to one another where abuse no longer exists. Bring healing to all of those who have been wronged. Open the doors of repentance to any who perpetuate the evils of abuse.”
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